The miniature half-timbered houses are crafted by hand and decorated with wreaths. Tiny figures lean out of the windows, among them a man in uniform with a swastika armband giving a “Heil Hitler” salute.
One shoebox-sized building has a row of shops; another is lined with balconies and flower boxes. They may have been part of a model railway set owned by Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler’s right-hand man in the Nazi party and commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe. He owned two train sets together covering 400 square meters (4,305 square feet) at his country estate.
“We can date these houses from between 1933 and 1945,” says Frank Beseke, a legal specialist working for the German government. “We have a lot of other things that belonged to Goering, which suggests these may well have come from Carinhall too,” he says, referring to the Reichsmarschall’s home north of Berlin.
Today, they sit on a shelf in a government depot in Berlin, where Angelika Enderlein, an art historian employed by the government, is researching the ownership of a trove of unclaimed paintings, sculptures and other items. Some were plundered from Jewish families; some belonged to Nazi leaders.
Thousands of treasures were discovered in mines, caves, palaces and depots and assembled at a collecting point in Munich by the U.S. and British Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives unit.
“It would have been helpful if the Allies had given us more information,” Enderlein smiles, holding up two blue index cards documenting the model houses. They are blank on the back, giving no clue of the previous owners.
A morphine addict who kept pet lions, jangled emeralds like small change in his pockets and built up a huge stash of stolen art, Goering also loved toys.
Photos show him displaying his train sets to houseguests including Hitler and the Hungarian leader Miklos Horthy in the attic and basement of Carinhall.
After moving his collection to Bavaria, Goering ordered Carinhall to be dynamited to prevent it falling into Soviet hands. The fate of the model trains is unknown, Enderlein says.
The intriguingly named Federal Office for Central Services and Unresolved Property Issues, where Enderlein and Beseke work, is based in the still-shabby eastern Berlin district of Pankow.
Its tasks include handling claims for compensation and restitution from victims of Nazi theft, and for those expropriated by the communist East German regime.
The office also inherited about 2,300 unclaimed paintings, graphics, sculptures and artifacts, along with 10,000 coins and books from the Allied depots at the end of World War II.
Enderlein says the provenance of about 1,900 artworks has so far been investigated. Forty-one have been restituted to heirs. Most of the rest are on loan to German museums and are searchable online.
Enderlein recounts successes, often the result of serendipity. A 16th-century walnut table was restituted to the heirs of a Jewish telephone maker persecuted by the Nazis in 2009 after a researcher spotted it in a 1943 auction catalog.
“Now at the end, we are left with the difficult cases,” Enderlein says. “In the case of coins, medallions and books, we are not hopeful.”
Some other items will remain unclaimed. Two sideboards at the back of the depot belonged to the Reichskanzlei in Berchtesgaden, Bavaria, Hitler’s second seat of government, Enderlein says.
Piles of carpets include one that belonged to Goering. Enderlein says he ordered it from a Berlin company that imported from Persia, so it’s unlikely to be looted.
“We offer a lot of things on loan to museums, but because of the size of them, the museums can’t store the big carpets,” Enderlein says. “We may end up having to sell some of these items, but only if the provenance is completely cleared up.”
The office also needs to be wary of collectors with Nazi sympathies who would value the items as relics of the regime, Enderlein says.
“In the case of a carpet with Nazi symbols on it, then of course we wouldn’t sell it,” she says. “We had one like that: It went to the German Historical Museum in Berlin.”
A bronze copy of the Uffizi Venus Medici adorns the foyer of the Federal Office. This one has an unhealthy greenish tinge -- thanks to its watery history.
It stood in the ceremonial hall of Goering’s Carinhall estate. Beseke speculates that Goering ran out of space when moving his art collection, so Venus was dumped into the Gross Doelln lake to safeguard her from Soviet troops.
The East German authorities left her undisturbed. It was only in 1990, 45 years after her disappearance, that she was hauled to the surface. She has been restored and given a limestone pedestal.
“We left the green patina to recall her underwater past,” Beseke says.
Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on arts, Elin McCoy on wine, Mark Beech on music, Catherine Hickley on German art and Greg Evans on U.S. television.